Why the world can’t unfriend Mark Zuckerberg

Twenty years on from Facebook’s founding, we are all living in the weird world of Zuck.

Andrew Orlowski

Topics Politics Science & Tech USA

Twenty years after ‘TheFacebook’ was launched on 4 February 2004, the world still doesn’t know what to make of Mark Zuckerberg, its very peculiar co-founder.

He has spent most of the past decade trying to impersonate a normie, and trying so very hard to be liked. Now, however, he seems to have stopped worrying about how he appears to the world, and has gone back to tending to the business. Fortunately for him, business is booming.

Today, Meta Platforms – as Facebook’s parent company has been called since 2021 – is worth more than $1 trillion. Its share price hit an all-time high at the end of January. It was the best-performing Big Tech stock in 2023.

Over the past two decades, Zuckerberg has been on quite the personal journey. In the mid-to-late 2000s, during the early years of Facebook’s emergence, he was hailed as a ‘Digital Jesus’. An image taken in 2011 during the Arab Spring shows a huddle of poverty-stricken Egyptian men, cheerfully holding up a cardboard sign. Crudely written on the sign are two words, ‘FACE BOOK’.

Not one of the men in the picture was a Facebook user, or even regularly used a computer – it was a staged photo. But the media and political class wanted to believe that social media had driven the upheavals across the Arab world. They saw digital networks as possessing transformative, magical powers, with Facebook cast as the deus ex machina. In late 2011, the BBC even broadcast a two-part series, entitled How Facebook Changed the World. The hero of the Western media’s story of the Arab Spring was not the people. It wasn’t those who stood up to armed soldiers. No, it was the machines.

At the time, Zuckerberg was still in his mid-twenties, and only a paper billionaire, with his putative wealth tied up in Facebook’s shares. From the early 2010s onwards, ‘Team Zuck’ attempted to shape his public image. But his oddness was always a problem. The same year as the ‘Facebook Spring’, he announced that his mission for 2011 would be to only eat meat from animals he had personally killed. Zuckerberg invited former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for tea. Dorsey was shown a goat that Zuckerberg had personally dismembered. Dorsey stuck to the salad.

In 2016, Zuckerberg announced his intention to ‘build a simple AI to run my home… like Jarvis in Iron Man’. This went weird in a very Zuckerberg way. His walkthrough demonstrated how his AI could snub friends who had popped by without booking. ‘Once it identifies the person, it checks a list to confirm I’m expecting that person, and if I am then it will let them in and tell me they’re here’, he explained.

Later in 2016, Zuckerberg was asked if he was a lizard by a member of the public on a Facebook livestream. Of course, he denied it in the most Zuck way possible. ‘I am not a lizard’, he insisted.

By 2017, he was laying the groundwork for a presidential bid, and declared it his mission to visit every US state. He kicked off his tour in Iowa, where he spent a lot of time getting photographed with truckers, farmers and in roadside diners. Zuckerberg couldn’t help but make this weird, too. ‘Trucking is a unique lifestyle’, he said, ‘that often involves your family’.

This weirdness and earnestness were a gift to fiction writers. Dave Eggers produced a beautiful amalgamation of Google and Facebook’s creepy utopianism for his 2013 novel, The Circle. Eggers created a sinister world in which ‘sharing is caring’ and ‘privacy is theft’.

But after the 2016 presidential election, the media and political class, which had once lauded Zuckerberg as a wonder boy, turned on him. All of the perceived troubles of the social-media age were parked at Zuckerberg’s door, from the election of President Trump to an explosion of teenage anxiety.

There were problems with social media, of course. Facebook executives privately admitted that their platforms, especially Instagram, could be ‘toxic’ for young people. But they couldn’t seem to care less. For them, user-engagement metrics were paramount.

In recent years, Zuckerberg has tried to counter the growing hostility from the political and media class. In 2018, he formed a pseudo-NGO, the Facebook ‘Oversight Board’, to monitor content. He also hired one of the political class’s own, in the shape of former UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, as Facebook’s head of global policy and communications. Whether this has helped rehabilitate Facebook’s tarnished image is open to debate.

Not that Zuckerberg seems too concerned. What he has always really cared about is looking after his business, which he does very well. Meta is one half of the global advertising duopoly, alongside Google. But Meta is the one that’s best at bringing together buyers and sellers. Meta higher-ups privately boast that if you make any kind of product, nobody finds those customers for you more efficiently. As one executive told me last year, Meta’s code is ‘feeding their learning about how to be more effective… their machine runs hotter than anyone else’s’. ‘They’re so good at what they do, they see the code of the Matrix, where everyone else sees the cat’, he explained.

Of course, rumours of Meta’s demise continue to circulate. But they’ve been exaggerated many times before. When new social networks seemed to pop up every year, we were told that Facebook would soon be superseded by one of these hipper newcomers. And so Zuckerberg bought Instagram to ensure that Facebook’s ageing audience of Gen Xers and Boomers didn’t leave its ad business high and dry.

Since then, it has also survived the post-2016 ‘fake news’ moral panic, in which Russia was supposedly flooding social-media platforms with disinformation. And no doubt it will survive the current political crusade to tackle ‘online harms’.

Zuckerberg operates Meta as a fiefdom. This means he can carry on pursuing his obsession with the Metaverse, a ludicrous virtual-reality concept he can’t seem to relinquish, despite the spirally costs and lack of interest from the public. But then, with $90 billion a year in expenses to play with, he has plenty of money to waste.

Few if any of Meta’s public critics take issue with the economic implications of Meta’s dominance. They fail to question whether it’s wise to have such a powerful business gatekeeper, or whether the vastly lucrative digital-advertising market allows for fair competition. But that’s probably how Zuckerberg likes it. Twenty years on, things really couldn’t have worked out any better for him.

Andrew Orlowski is a weekly columnist at the Telegraph. Visit his website here. Follow him on Twitter: @AndrewOrlowski.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics Science & Tech USA


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